Posts filed under 'The Supernatural'

1709: Christopher Slaughterford, “Vengeance, Vengeance!”

Add comment July 9th, 2020 Headsman

The aptly named Christopher Slaughterford hanged on this date in 1709 — condemned, quite possibly wrongfully, for murdering his fiancee Jane Young.

Slaughterford owned a maltings at Shalford in Surrey and was known to be paying court to Miss Young when the latter went missing on the evening of the 5th of October, 1703. She turned up weeks later, dead in a pond and it was clear from the state of the body that it had been no accidental fall.

The closest relations of the victim in such cases are natural first suspects, and it was no exception with Slaughterford. With his neighbors murmuring, he turned himself in and stood trial at the Kingston assizes, winning acquittal: there was no firm evidence against him.

But the good people of Shalford not being satisfied with this outcome subscribed a second, private prosecution against Slaughterford. Some witnesses swore they’d been seen together that evening; Slaughterford and his lodger said he’d been at home. Such information as survives does not license one to make a categorical assertion of Slaughterford’s innocence but even for the time it was no better than a weak circumstantial case.”Some of the depositions against him seem very striking; yet the testimony in his favour is equally clear. There appears nothing in the former part of his life to impeach his character; there is no proof of any animosity between him and the party murdered; and there is an apparent contradiction in part of the evidence against him,” laments the Newgate Calendar. “The charitable reader must, therefore, be inclined to think this man was innocent, and that he fell a sacrifice to the prejudices, laudable, perhaps, of his incensed neighbours.”

Slaughterford for his part carried his denial of guilt all the way to the noose, signing this statement on the day of his hanging.

GUILDFORD, JULY 9, 1709

Being brought here to die, according to the sentence passed upon me at the Queen’s-Bench bar, for a crime of which I am wholly innocent, I thought myself obliged to let the world know, that they may not reflect on my friends and relations, whom I have left behind me much troubled for my fatal end, that I know nothing of the death of Jane Young, nor how she came by her death, directly or indirectly, though some have been pleased to cast reflections on my aunt. However, I freely forgive all my enemies, and pray to God to give them a due sense of their errors, and in his due time to bring the truth to light. In the mean time, I beg every one to forbear reflecting on my dear mother, or any of my relations, for my unjust and unhappy fall, since what I have here set down is truth, and nothing but the truth, as I expect salvation at the hands of Almighty God; but I am heartily sorry that I should be the cause of persuading her to leave her dame, which is all that troubles me.

As witness my hand this 9th day of July.

While the Young family was poor, they were in respect of Slaughterford’s life mightier than the sovereign herself: a private prosecution admitted no intervention by other courts or crown once a conviction was secured. Perversely, he’d have been better off having been convicted at his first trial, when the unreliable evidence might have recommended him as a good case for mercy.

Having been shown no clemency in life, Slaughterford offers none in death. Legend has it that his angry spirit now haunts the High Street of Guildford where he hanged, bearing a halter about its neck and a terrible cry of “Vengeance, Vengeance!” upon its spectral lips.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Public Executions,The Supernatural,Wrongful Executions

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1908: Chester Gillette, A Place in the Sun inspiration

Add comment March 30th, 2020 Headsman

Theodore Dreiser‘s classic novel An American Tragedy was inspired by an infamous 1906 murder whose author, Chester Gillette, was electrocuted at Auburn Prison on this date in 1908.

It was a crime tailor-made for the burgeoning mass media, popular and pretty 20-year-old Grace Brown gone to work at the Cortland, N.Y. Gillette Skirt Factory where the owner’s nephew seduced and impregnated her.

That, of course, is our man Chester Gillette, who further distressed his lover by tomcatting around town, especially charging the love triangle with class rivalry with his rumored interest in a socialite while he stalled for time with Ms. Brown. Dreiser’s novel — which is freely available from the public domain — spins on this axis, although the real-life heiress in question put out an arch press release averring that “I have never been engaged to Chester E. Gillette … Our acquaintance was of … a limited duration.”

That was also true of Gillette’s acquaintance with Grace Brown. At length he induced the future mother of his child to elope to the Adirondacks upon the apparent prospect of finally regularizing their situation. Instead, after making a couple of stops in upstate New York, they paused on July 11 at Big Moose Lake for a nice canoe outing. While out on the water, Gillette bashed his lover’s head with his tennis racket and forced her into the water to drown.

Letters the two had exchanged would establish that Gillette knew Brown could not swim … and the fact that he’d brought his whole suitcase with him for this supposed day trip would establish his premeditated intent. Gillette schlepped his stuff along with his guilty conscience through the woods to another lake and checked into a hotel under his real name(!). He was as careless with his coverup, alibi, and escape as he had been with his heart; Brown’s body was recovered the very next day and the trail led directly back to Gillette, who was not difficult to find and couldn’t stick to a story — alternately claiming that the drowning was an accident, a suicide, or something that happened when he wasn’t there at all.

The snake was public enemy number one by the time he came to his trial, making the case a national sensation. Dreiser improved it to literature in 1925, and it was such a hit that he was immediately called upon to adapt it for the stage. A version hit the silver screen as soon as 1931, but its best-known rendering is the 1951 classic A Place in the Sun, which earned Academy Award nominations for both Shelley Winters and Montgomery Clift, who portrayed the young lovers.

It’s had an enduring appeal for the century since; rumors of Grace Brown’s ghost haunting Big Moose Lake brought the case to the Unsolved Mysteries television program in the 1990s, and an award-winning 2003 novel A Northern Light centers around a fictional friend of Grace Brown’s. There’s even an A Place in the Sun opera.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Murder,New York,Sex,The Supernatural,USA

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1891: Slumach

Add comment January 16th, 2020 Headsman

Treasure-hunters mark this date in 1891, the hanging of an elderly Katzie indigenous man named* Slumach. Did he take with him to the gallows the secret of a lost gold hoard?

The previous September, Slumach shot dead a man named Louis Bee at a fishing spot along Lillooet Slough near the Pitt River in Canada’s western province of British Columbia. Evidently, Mr. Bee was the slough’s resident asshole, “in the habit of blustering at, and threatening almost everyone with whom he came in contact,” and had a running grudge with Slumach that the old man decided to resolve.

Although there were several bystander who witnessed the murder, none could — or dared try — apprehend the gunman, who escaped into the rugged wilderness and evaded pursuers for a number of weeks, until winter deprived him of his forage and forced his surrender.

Legendary for his ferocity in a scrap, this Slumach was much reduced, having scarcely eaten for days and showing every bit of his 60 years. “There was much sympathy for Slumach among those who witnessed his execution,” one news report ran — for, “[i]t was thought that the Government might, with just clemency, have extended a reprieve to him, for he certainly would not have lived very long in confinement, and the fact that he never ran across law and order in any shape until the latter years of his long life made many hope that he would be allowed to finish his career in the confinement of the penitentiary.”

This is an interesting enough incident on its own but what’s not in any of the original reporting is talk about gold. Many years later, however, newspapers began to speculate on his possible associations with Pitt Lake’s lost gold mine, a mythical(?) B.C. El Dorado that has been a desideratum of prospectors since the mid-19th century.

Both the existence of this mine and its relationship to Slumach are highly dubious propositions — greatly embroidered from the 1920s onward in wistful romances of the vanished frontier. (For example, Slumach is supposed to have cursed the stash, dooming a number of explorers and treasure-hunters lost in the vicinity.) Nevertheless, the link is so tightly held at this point that the mine is also sometimes known simply as “Slumach’s Mine” and latter-day adventurers have still been known to take up the trail in the hopes of conquering a lucrative historical mystery.

There’s a fun audio summary of this continuing enigma from the Dark Poutine Podcast — a Canadian true crime/dark history jam, as one might guess — here. And if you’re ready to break out the pick and shovel, the site slumach.ca has you covered for deep background reading.

* He was baptized under the scaffold and given the Christian name Peter. Fortunately for his searchability, nobody refers to him that way.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Canada,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,The Supernatural

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1842: William Caffee, Mineral Point spook

Add comment November 1st, 2019 Headsman

Mineral Point, Wisconsin’s historic Walker House inn and tavern hosted a public execution on this date in 1842 … and rumor has it that the hanged man hasn’t stopped hanging around ever since.

The Mystery Of The Pointing Dog is tween historical fiction set in Mineral Point on the day of the hanging.

William Caffee’s journey to the gallows began earlier that year at a different publick-house, which also still stands today: Berry Tavern of Shullsburg, where Caffee picked a fight at a dance and ended up shooting another man dead, straight through the heart.

Evidence at his trial indicated that he’d boasted earlier that evening that he would kill a man that night, which led to his conviction for first-degree murder. Unchastened by his situation, the hardened ruffian passed the weeks until his death muttering threats to his guards and to the judge who noosed him.

Five thousand people assembled in the peaceful and quiet village of Mineral Point to witness what! The agony and dying throes of a fellow man. Good God! What a curiosity.

The crowd was not made up of any particular class, but was composed indiscriminately of both high and low, rich and poor, men white with the frosts of age, and tottering upon the verge of eternity were here, young men in throngs were here. The pious and the good were here. The aged and discreet matron was here. The virgin, “chaste as the icicle that hangs on Dian’s temple,” were here. Infants, muling and puking in their nurse’s arms, were here by the acre. In a word, every age, sex, color and condition was fully represented here to-day.

The Execution took place upon the low ground below the town, surrounded by an amphitheatre of hills, which were literally covered by the eager multitude. The scaffold was constructed upon the old plan, and consisted of a square frame work, placed upon the ground, into which was inserted two upright posts about twelve feet high and four feet apart; across the top of these posts went a beam, with a large iron hook inserted, to which was attached the rope. Between the upright posts, and about six feet from the ground was fixed a platform or trap door, about four feet square, hung with hinges upon one side and kept in a horizontal position by a pin passing through one of the upright posts and under the edge of the platform. To this pin was attached a lever for the purpose of drawing it out and letting fall the trap. The ascent to the scaffold was by means of a flight of stairs.

Agreeable to the requisition of George Messersmith, Esq. Sheriff, Capt. Shaw attended from the South part of the county, with a company of thirty men, in uniform, armed with muskets, a company of Dragoons armed with pistols and sabres, was organized at Mineral Point, under Major Gray, a strong guard of citizens was also organized and stationed round the Jail during the fore part of the day, and were afterwards incorporated into Capt. Shaw’s company.

At 2 o’clock, P.M. the procession formed in front of the Jail in the following order:

Dragoons under Maj. Gray;
Infantry;
Waggon containing coffin;
Infantry;
Dragoons under Col. Sublett;

Prisoner was then led forth from the jail in a long white robe, with a white cap upon his head, and a rope round his neck, leaning upon the arm of the Sheriff; he walked to the wagon and stepped into it with little or no assistance, and seated himself upon the coffin; the Sheriff and his deputies took seats in the wagon; a dead march was struck up, and the procession moved forward to the place of execution. Here the military were stationed round the gallows at the distance of some thirty feet, to keep off the crowd. Prisoner was then assisted from the wagon, and with a firm step ascended with the Sheriff to the scaffold. The Rev. Mr. Wilcox, who was in frequent attendance upon the prisoner during his last hours, now ascended the scaffold and prayed with him for the last time; thePrisoner, in the meantime, leaning upon one of the posts of the gallows, and manifesting no emotion. Upon being asked by the Sheriff if he had any thing to say, he answered no, and requested that the rope might be adjusted “with a good long slack,” and his doom forthwith sealed. The Sheriff then adjusted the rope, drew the cap down over the prisoner’s face, and descended from the scaffold, putting his hand to lever, the fatal pin was drawn out, and prisoner launched into eternity.

From the time of prisoner’s arrest, down to the last moment of his existence, he maintained the utmost coolness; and manifested such a contempt of death, as to invest him with a sort of terrible grandeur; making good upon the scaffold his previous boast, that he could stare the grim messenger out of countenance.

North Western Gazette & Galena Advertiser, November 4, 1842

Present-day Mineral Point has not been above exploiting the famous hanging as a tourist attraction, but this is only fair considering that Caffee’s ghost has been reported to haunt the Walker House ever since. (Perhaps only one of several supernatural terrors menacing Mineral Point.)

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Public Executions,The Supernatural,USA,Wisconsin

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Feast Day of St. Genesius

Add comment August 25th, 2019 Headsman

“I love acting. It is so much more real than life.”

Oscar Wilde

August 25 is the feast date of Saint Genesius of Rome.

He’s the patron of actors and to judge by his career he was the earliest and greatest pioneer of the Method.

The story with Genesius, and as usual for early Christians we have more of hagiography than historicity, is that during the persecutions of Diocletian, the very pagan St. G. was tasked with caricaturing a Christian convert on stage. As a fellow thespian poured a “baptism” over him, Genesius was bathed instead by the Holy Spirit and actually converted, right on the spot — preaching to the infuriated emperor,

I came here today to please an earthly Emperor but what I have done is to please a heavenly King. I came here to give you laughter, but what I have done is to give joy to God and his angels. From this moment on, believe me, I will never mock these great mysteries again. I now know that the Lord Jesus Christ is the true God, the Light, the Truth and the Mercy of all who have received his gift of baptism. O great Emperor, believe in these mysteries! I will teach you, and you will know the Lord Jesus Christ is the true God.

Diocletian had him tortured and beheaded instead.

Apart from actors, Genesius also accepts petitions from the whole gamut of jesters and caperers including clowns, comedians, dancers and musicians. Also lawyers.

There is a Fraternity of St. Genesius, recently developed to support Catholics working in theater and cinema. Theaters bear his name in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Sydney, Australia.

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Entry Filed under: Actors,Ancient,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Entertainers,Execution,God,Italy,Martyrs,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,The Supernatural,Torture,Uncertain Dates

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1909: William Hampton, Cornwall ghost

Add comment July 20th, 2019 Headsman

The last man executed in Cornwall, William Hampton, hanged in Bodmin on this date in 1909.

Hampton was in the awkward position of making time with a 16-year-old girl whose mother he was boarding with, and then having the girl break things off with him.

Probably a change of lodgings would have suited all best, but Hampton moved to Bodmin Jail by throttling poor Emily Tredea to death one night that May. The exact trigger for the murder was never clear, as the eventual murderer had been living amicably in the house for a spell even after Tredea’s breakup. The jury recommended mercy for Hampton on account of his youth, his lack of previous criminal record, and a crime that appeared to be at least somewhat heat-of-the-moment. The judge made the contrary recommendation on account of Hampton’s having spent several minutes to choke out his ex-girlfriend, then fled from the law, showing some degree of intent and mens rea. The judge’s recommendation carried the day with the Home Office.

Apparently his revenant spirit has been captured on camera haunting Bodmin Jail.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Sex,The Supernatural

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1820: John and Lavinia Fisher

Add comment February 18th, 2019 Headsman

February 18, 1820 was the execution date of South Carolina crime Hall of Famers John and Lavinia Fisher.

By legendary repute the first serial killer in America, Fisher and her husband John were said to lure travelers to their Six Mile Wayfarer House near Ashley Ferry outside Charleston where they’d be poisoned, stabbed, and robbed.

Alas, the Fishers were actually a more conventional sort of brigand.


National Advocate for the Country (New York, N.Y.), January 28, 1820.

Quite incredible legends have been embroidered for this purported Bates Motel of the early Republic: for instance, that their cover was blown by a man named John Peoples/Peeples who grew suspicious enough to avoid drinking the poisoned tea and then sat up all night like young Felix Platter until he caught wind of the imminent attack, sprang out a window, and fled to safety. If so, it was a woeful failure of the period’s journalists merely to report that he had been savagely beaten and robbed.

A few books about the Lavinia Fisher case

Instead, these two seemed to be part of a gang of bandits who occupied not only their Six Mile House but also the Five Mile House, and Lavinia wasn’t the only woman in the lot: one Jane Howard was among the half-dozen arrested when the Six Mile lair was raided by a vigilante posse in February 1819, along with William Heyward, James M’Elwray, and Seth Young, along with others uncaptured. (Names via National Advocate, March 3, 1819) Papers of the time slate them with offenses like stealing livestock and highway robbery, and it’s the latter crime — not murder — that brought the Fishers to their gallows.

Either way, Charleston tour guides will tell you that she haunts the old city jail to this day. She’s also famous for her purported last words, “If you have a message you want to send to Hell, give it to me; I’ll carry it,” which might even be a real quote.


Alexandria [Va.] Gazette & Daily Advertiser, Feb. 26, 1820

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous Last Words,Hanged,History,Organized Crime,Public Executions,South Carolina,The Supernatural,Theft,USA,Women

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546: Croesus

Add comment January 5th, 2019 Headsman

It was perhaps around the winter outset of 546 BCE that the Lydian king Croesus was captured and executed or spared by the Persians.

Famed for his wealth — he funded the construction of the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders* — Croesus was heir to a 600-year-old empire dominating western Anatolia. Herodotus credits the Lydians as the inventors of coinage, a likely basis for the “rich as Croesus” expression.

Would that he had been so rich in wisdom.

In perhaps 547 BCE, Croesus launched a war against the rising power on his eastern border — the Persian Achaemenid Empire, led by Cyrus the Great. In a classic ancient own-goal, Croesus got the thumbs-up for this adventure from the Oracle of Delphi, who told the Lydian envoys that if Croesus fought Persia, he would destroy a great empire.** That empire turned out be his own.

After fighting to a stalemate in the autumn of 547, Croesus retired to his capital of Sardis to winter, believing war would abate with the end of the campaigning season — even dismissing his allies until the spring.

Cyrus surprised him instead, marching aggressively on Sardis and putting it to siege after routing a much larger Lydian army at the Battle of Thymbra.† It wasn’t long before the Persians found an ill-defended entrance into the city’s citadel via a mountain ascent, and fulfilled the Pythian priestess’s prophecy.

We have no certain record of Croesus’s actual fate; the histories for him come from later Greeks, whose accounts are contradictory and even folklorish; J.A.S. Evans suggests in a 1978 scholarly exploration that the Greeks were equally in the dark about the matter but that “Croesus had become a figure of myth, who stood outside the conventional restraints of chronology.”

Herodotus renders his version thus, turning the action on Croesus’s remembrance of a previous encounter with the Greek wise man Solon, who had counseled him that wealth is not happiness:

The Persians gained Sardis and took Croesus prisoner. Croesus had ruled fourteen years and been besieged fourteen days. Fulfilling the oracle, he had destroyed his own great empire.

The Persians took him and brought him to Cyrus, who erected a pyre and mounted Croesus atop it, bound in chains, with twice seven sons of the Lydians beside him. Cyrus may have intended to sacrifice him as a victory-offering to some god, or he may have wished to fulfill a vow, or perhaps he had heard that Croesus was pious and put him atop the pyre to find out if some divinity would deliver him from being burned alive. So Cyrus did this.

As Croesus stood on the pyre, even though he was in such a wretched position it occurred to him that Solon had spoken with god’s help when he had said that no one among the living is fortunate. When this occurred to him, he heaved a deep sigh and groaned aloud after long silence, calling out three times the name “Solon.” Cyrus heard and ordered the interpreters to ask Croesus who he was invoking … He explained that first Solon the Athenian had come and seen all his fortune and spoken as if he despised it. Now everything had turned out for him as Solon had said, speaking no more of him than of every human being, especially those who think themselves fortunate.

While Croesus was relating all this, the pyre had been lit and the edges were on fire. When Cyrus heard from the interpreters what Croesus said, he relented and considered that he, a human being, was burning alive another human being, one his equal in good fortune.

In addition, he feared retribution, reflecting how there is nothing stable in human affairs. He ordered that the blazing fire be extinguished as quickly as possible, and that Croesus and those with him be taken down, but despite their efforts they could not master the fire.

Then the Lydians say that Croesus understood Cyrus’ change of heart, and when he saw everyone trying to extinguish the fire but unable to check it, he invoked Apollo, crying out that if Apollo had ever been given any pleasing gift by him, let him offer help and deliver him from the present evil.

Thus he in tears invoked the god, and suddenly out of a clear and windless sky clouds gathered, a storm broke, and it rained violently, extinguishing the pyre.

Even in this one text, Cyrus both does and does not execute Croesus, a figure whose proportions of historicity and legend are impossible to measure. In different variants of this tragic fall, Croesus puts up his own pyre for desperate self-immolation like the Steward of Gondor

… or it is or is not successfully extinguished. A post-pyre Croesus then goes on to become a dutiful slave of Cyrus, the relationship of conquered and conquering kings full of aphorism and fable-ready vignettes with no dependable historical warrant.

* For the pedants in the room, the “Seven Wonders” roster was composed later in antiquity, and the Temple of Artemis made the list based on its rebuild version after the one put up by Croesus had been torched by the fame-seeking Herostratus.

** Croesus rated the Delphic oracle’s advice highly. Aesop, the fable guy got himself executed by the Delphians by misbehaving while in the course of delivering a tribute from Croesus.

† Allegedly, the unnerving sight of Cyrus’s camels arrayed for battle panicked the Lydian cavalry into flight.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Burned,Execution,Executions Survived,Famous,Heads of State,History,Language,Last Minute Reprieve,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Pardons and Clemencies,Persia,Popular Culture,Power,Reprieved Too Late,Royalty,Summary Executions,The Supernatural,Turkey,Uncertain Dates,Wartime Executions

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1909: Martha Rendell

Add comment October 6th, 2018 Headsman

For the last time ever, Western Australia executed a woman on this date in 1909. Her name was Martha Rendell, and she had allegedly murdered up to three of her partner’s five* children.

Although they never got the legal document, we might as well call Rendell and Thomas Nicholls Morris man and wife: the two moved in after Morris’s previous marriage failed, presented themselves as one another’s spouses, and had the four kids call Rendell “mom”. They lived together in a downscale district in east Perth, steps away from an open drain fed by industrial runoff.

And if what they charged her with is true — for Rendell would always deny it and her denials have had found traction with some from her time to ours — then nasty stepmothers of fairy tales might have sued Martha Rendell for defamation of character. Indeed, her step-motherliness clearly weighed against her in the public mind.

In 1907, four of the children took ill with diphtheria. After a relapse, seven-year-old Annie died; the death certificate would put it down to “epilepsy and cardiac weakness” (both diphtheria symptoms). Her little sister Olive, still weakened by her bout with diphtheria, contracted typhoid and bled and vomited to death in August of that same year. The doctors who treated these girls didn’t suspect anything untoward but the following year when yet a third of the children (Arthur, 14) also died of apparent typhoid. Doctors on this occasion conducted an autopsy, curious to find evidence of poisoning — an autopsy that Rendell attended and ordered halted partway through, an action that would play very culpably at her eventual trial.**

Said trial was not to be triggered until the following spring, when another son, George, fled the house to the protection of his natural mother, and told a nightmare tale of the mean stepmother painting the children’s throats with hydrochloric acid and serving them suspicious bitter tea that sent them to their sickbeds.

“In hindsight George’s story seems highly implausible, the feverish imagining of a vengeful mother and stepson newly reunited,” argues a Rendell defender who situates the Morris household’s catastrophe amid a wider social panic over the corruption of Perth’s feminine mores, embracing everything from prostitution to baby farming.

The horrific caustic action of hydrochloric acid was not the sort of stealthy killer chosen by poisoners nor did it fit with the gradual wasting noted by the children’s doctor. And how could the woman have forced a youth of fifteen to submit to such cruelty? If Rendell had used diluted solutions of the acid (and it came to light after the trial that this was a home remedy used as a mild antiseptic and sometimes applied to the throat to treat diphtheria) then how had this uneducated woman calibrated the children’s dosages to create symptoms to fool Perth’s most respected doctors?

The strength of feeling bordering on mass hysteria that lay at the heart of public frenzy about this woman was exhibited in the shrill crowds of Perth women demanding her hanging and worse. Some women even invaded the Morris cottage when it was opened up to auction the contents and souvenired every household item, even the auctioneer’s hat so that only ten pounds were raised for the couple’s legal defence.

Little concrete evidence was ever produced against her — was it thanks to that aborted autopsy? — but neighbors grown prejudiced against the scarlet villainess would color remembrances of her conduct in testimony that also told on themselves as peeping toms: this time a failure to nurture and that time a glow of outright pleasure at a crying child.

Much subtext surfaced in text. The arresting officer noted her “delighted in seeing her victims writhe in agony, and from it derived sexual satisfaction.” One appalling newspaper editorial reviled her as “a type that is seldom encountered in English speaking races … she represents a reversion to the primitive stage of humanity when destructive proclivities are uppermost. Like aboriginals, the Martha Rendells of this world must kill.” It was scarcely a novel formula for anathematizing the female criminal.

It was only Arthur for whom she was formally condemned but after the five-day trial she was popularly understood as responsible for all three of her dead stepchildren. But not all the public, for a vigorous albeit unsuccessful clemency campaign specifically citing doubts about the case’s evidence grew around her during her few short weeks awaiting the gallows. Those doubts have never since been categorically dispelled.

Legend holds that Martha Rendell still haunts Fremantle Prison where she hanged, in the form of a ghostly apparition of her face peering out from a stained-glass window.

* There were five children still in the house. Thomas Morris also had four older children, making nine total.

** Martha Rendell had also fallen ill during the course of treating her children. This of course was read by prosecutors as a feint to deflect suspicion.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,The Supernatural,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1697: The Paisley Witches

1 comment June 10th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1697, the Paisley, Renfrewshire Gallow Green played stage for the strangling and burning of six “witches.” They’re known as the Paisley witches, the Renfrewshire witches, or the Bargarran witches, and are sometimes acclaimed the last mass-executed witches in western Europe.

This book posits a more than incidental resemblance between Salem and Renfrewshire, given that the “possessed child” figure was not a usual ornament for Scottish witchcraft cases.

In a setup bearing a disturbing similarity to the Salem witch trials,* an 11-year-old brat named Christian Shaw, the daughter of a local laird, got a tongue-lashing from the family servant and then turned around and accused her a sorceress.

The psychological mechanisms at play make interesting speculation in such cases. Was she merely a spiteful little monster, or did she believe in accordance with the superstitions of her time that the servant’s curses had effect, and suffer real afflictions that ensued upon this belief? Can we see her in the end as a creature necessarily produced by her nation in its troubled hour, unmoored as it was by the political and religious dislocations of the Glorious Revolution, gnawed by famine, and hurtling towards an unwilling union with England? (The bizarre execution of an Edinburgh university student for blasphemy also unfolded in 1696-1697.)

We leave such speculations to the reader as we plunge into the onset of supernatural doings in these environs almost a year before the consequent executions — via a 1698 pamphlet titled “A True Narrative of the Sufferings and Relief of a Young Girle Strangely Molested, by Evil Spirits and their Instruments, in the West”

August 22 [1696], the Child went to Bed in good health; but so soon as she fell asleep, began to struggle and cry, Help, Help: And then suddenly got up, and did fly over the top of a Resting-bed, where she was lying (her Father, Mother, and others being in the Room, and to their great Astonishment and Admiration) with such violence, that probably her Brains had been dasht out, if a Woman, providentially standing by, and supported by a Door at her back, had not broke the force of the Childs motion, who being laid in another Bed, remained stiff and insensible as if she had been dead, for the space of half an Hour; but for Fourty eight Hours thereafter could not sleep, crying out of violent Pains thorow her whole Body, and no sooner began to sleep or turn drowsie but seemed greatly affrighted, crying still Help, Help.

These frightening spasms continued for days, contorting her body and robbing her of speech; helpless doctors bled her to no effect.

Some dayes thereafter was an alteration in her Fitts, so far, that she got speaking, during the time of them; and while she was in the fits, fell a crying, that Katharine Campbel and Agnes Naismith were cutting her side, and other parts of her Body; Which parts were in that time violently Tormented. And when the fit was over she still averred, that she had seen the same Persons doing the same things which she complained of while under the fit (it being remarkable that in the intervals she was still as well and sensible as ever) and would not believe but that others present saw them as well as she!

Katharine Campbell was servant who had chewed her out. Agnes Naismith was an old lady with a witchy reputation. In time they would headline the execution that occasions this post.

We must here pause to remark that the decision of the adults around Christian Shaw to steer this crisis in the girl’s life towards a judicial witch hunt was by no means predetermined. While capital statutes against bewitchment remained on the books, they were fading in practice; according to the invaluable Survey of Scottish Witchcraft database, there had been only a single witchcraft prosecution in Scotland since 1683, and that one did not result in execution. The sudden eruption of a dormant and vanishing cosmology, with sufficient force to devour seven humans, shocks the eye.

Credit must go to Shaw for a rare commitment to the performance, as her symptoms continued intermittently for months, and accumulated a growing roster of accused supernatural tormentors. She was taken to Glasgow for treatment, and taken again; she went on regimens of prayer and fasting; at one point she began pulling debris out of mouth like a prestidigitator, in such number and variety that her doctor remarked that “Were it not for the hairs, hay, straw, and other things wholly contrary to human nature, I should not despair to reduce all the other symptoms to their proper classes in the catalogue of human diseases.”

Although modernity will doubt that they bewitched the child, the accused women, Agnes and Katharine, knew exactly what was up when they were brought to confront their accuser. They addressed their common peril with opposite strategems. Agnes, “did (tho not desired) pray for her, viz. that the Lord God of Heaven and Earth might send the Damsel her health,” which prayer cured Christian Shaw of continuing to accuse Agnes of muddling her (“upon the contrary, as she apprehended, defending her from the fury of the rest” of the witches) — whereas the saltier Katharine “could by no means be prevailed with to pray for the Damsel, but upon the contrary when desired by some, cursed them and all the Family of Bargarran, and in particular the Damsel and all that belonged to her, withal adding this grievous Imprecation; The Devil let her never grow better, nor any concern’d in her, be in a better condition than she was in, for what they had done to her.” I like this Katharine, but Laird Bargarran had the sheriff throw her forthwith into the dungeon; the reader may recall from our foreshadowing that Agnes’s more diplomatic approach did not ultimately serve her any better.

By January, five months after Christian’s first fits, the doctors and ministers had been defeated and the Privy Council appointed a tribunal to investigate the matter and shoo away the hags bothering Christian Shaw. The annals of their actions makes for repellent reading, even by the standards of judges. Readers with strong eyeglass prescriptions can enjoy the full pdf here, but most will probably prefer this lucid summary by Undine, a onetime Executed Today guest blogger. We also have a Victorian compilation of records related to the affair here.

The hunt swept up a 14-year-old boy and his 11-year-old brother, a 17-year-old girl who was made to furnish accusations that incriminated still more people besides. One can see in our credulous 1698 account the enspelled little shit begin to revel in her theatrics and the power she held over her neighbors.

February 12. Margaret Laing and her Daughter Martha Semple, being delated by the three Confessants, and accused by the Girl to have been active instruments in her Trouble, came of their own accord to Bargarran’s House, and before they came up Stairs the Girl said, she was now bound up, and could not accuse Margaret Laing to her face: And accordingly the Girl’s Mother having desired somer of those who were sitting by her to feel some parts of her Body, and they having done it, found her Body so stiff and inflexible, that there was no moving of it, and immediately again found some parts of her Body contracted and drawn hard togethe [sic], as if by Cords; after this Margaret Lang and her Daughter, having gone to the Chamber of the Girle, did in presence of the Ministers and others, desire the Damsel to come to her; for she would do her no Harm, and laying her Arms about her, spake very fairly to her, and question’d her if ever she had seen her other Daughter among her Tormentors, to which the Girle did positively reply, she had frequently seen her Daughter; but declined thorow fear to accuse herself, saying faintly No, after which Margaret and her Daughter returning into the Hall, and the Minister enquiring at her why she said No, seeing she had accus’d her before, she answered, take me contrar, upon which she was seiz’d with a grievous Fit; yet after her recovery being urg’d again by those present to tell her Mind freely, whether or not Margaret Lang was one of her Tormentors the Child thereupon Essaying to say Yes, and having half-pronounced the Word, was cast into unexpressible Anguishes; and again in the interval of the Fit, she Essay’d to express the same thing, and saying only the word Tint (that is soft) was on a sudden struck with another fit, and when the fit was over, and the Child returned to the Chamber, Margaret Lang who was sitting near the Hall door, spoke these words after her. The Lord bless thee, and ding (that is beat, or drive) the Devil out of thee. A little after which words, Margaret going down stairs, the Damsel came to the Hall and said, her Bonds were now loos’d, and that now she could accuse Margaret Lang to her Face, and declar’d the occasion of her being so Restrain’d and Bound up while Margaret was present, was her letting fall a parcel of Hair at the Hall door as she came in; being a Charm made by her for that end, which also had been the occasion of her uttering the word Tint in the former fit: And accordingly a parcel of Hair had been found at the Hall-door, after Margaret Lang had gone straight from the Hall to the Chamber, which immediately was cast into the Fire and burnt. And its remarkable, that it could be attested that there was no Hair, or any other thing else in that place before Margaret Lang came in, and the Girle being enquired, what way she knew Margaret Lang had laid the forementioned Charm upon her, replyed, something speaking distinctly to her as it were above her Head, had suggested that to her.

In the end — and posterity unfortunately lacks the original trial record — there were seven condemned to death and although their names in the surviving accounts “are not very distinctly stated” they appear to comprise our two original accused, Katharine Campbell and Agnes Naismith, the aforementioned Margaret Lang, the 14-year-old child James Lindsay and an apparent kinsman named John Lindsay, and also John Reid and Margaret Fulton. (Some accounts more mawkishly make it little James Lindsay with his 11-year-old brother Thomas, but that’s not indicated by the primary sources which repeatedly note that Thomas is “under the age of pupilarity.”)

John Reid managed to hang himself in prison and cheat the executioner. Katharine Campbell did him one better by fighting her persecutors all the way to the stake, and deservedly showering everyone in earshot with curses. The legend has it that Campbell’s malediction lurks behind any civic setback endured by Paisley down the years, such as the 1810 Paisley canal disaster. A horseshoe placed over the embittered sorceress’s grave to keep ill fortune at bay was lost in the 1960s; in 2008, a brass horseshoe plaque was installed in its place at the intersection of Maxwellton and St. George Streets — the memorial admitting the injustice done to all the Renfrewshire witches.


(cc) image by Paisley Scotland.

As for the witches’ accuser, Christian Shaw mirrored in her own life’s story the epochal shift that transformed witches from a legally recognized threat to a ridiculous superstition — as she grew up to become essentially the founder of Paisley’s distinctive (and still to this day important) thread industry by creating the “Bargarran Thread” .

* Coincidentally, the first execution of the Salem trials also occurred on June 10.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Cheated the Hangman,Children,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Mass Executions,Not Executed,Notable for their Victims,Public Executions,Scotland,The Supernatural,Witchcraft,Women,Wrongful Executions

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